Unreal Nature

September 30, 2009

Making History

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:46 am

… The strong sense I had in Kurdistan was that I was photographing very consciously in the present, thinking about how the past would be seen in the future.

… We’re dealing with a history that no single Kurd has ever lived. We want as much as we can to allow all of those Kurds in competing histories to be represented and to be revealed by representation. Do the Kurds connect to a sense of the history that we’ve been uncovering? The reality is that they must still be digging for their own, much more immediate history — which is tragic.

That and the following are from Aperture 133 (Fall 1993), “interviews with Susan Meiselas at her New York studio, March 16 and 27, 1993” by Melissa Harris. Please note the date: 1993, well before the current war in Iraq:

I’m in the middle of this book project about the Kurds. In addition to my own photographs, my studio is filled with stacks of images made by men and women I’ve never met, most of whom died before I was born. Many of these people were strangers — tourists or travelers in Kurdistan, like me, only glimpsing and perhaps not even understanding the history that I — with collaborators around the world — attempted to document.

… that book [Meiselas’s preceding book which was on/of Chile] seems now very much part of the contemporary debate within photography over who has the right to depict his or her condition or the condition of some “other.”

The Kurdish situation has again raised the issue, though differently, for I have found by visiting homes, as well as by going to archives, that without the eye of the “other” — the traveler, the Westerner — there would be few images of the past, and it is indeed those photographs that provide people with a sense of who they have been, in order perhaps to make sense of who they are and who they will be. This experience has reaffirmed for me the value and importance of documentary photography, and at the same time it has made me even more aware of how complex the act of reading meanings from photographs can be.

[ … ]

The strong sense I had in Kurdistan was that I was photographing very consciously in the present, thinking about how the past would be seen in the future.

This is not going to be the “objective” history of Kurdistan. Ultimately, it is a selection of what has been photographed, and maybe it can, at best, point out what hasn’t been photographed. This book assumes that one set of protagonists are the image makers. Then there are the protagonists of history, the “players,” the importance of whom I often discovered through seeing their photograph over and over. I had to ask, “Why is this man imaged over and over again?” Obviously, he was important at a particular time. But the interpretation of his role in the larger struggle, or even at that particular time, can vary considerably among the Kurds — whether they think he is significant to the shaping of history or not. I don’t have the right to decide this. Our project can only be based on what we’ve been able to find. But we hope to contextualize this material and also to reveal what is missing in Kurdish oral history.

As far as the effect our project may have, at best, it will provide fourth graders in Kurdistan with their own visual history. Today, they don’t know much about it. Many of them don’t know more than what their fathers have told them — if their fathers knew. In school curriculums — its very existence is generally denied.

… We’re dealing with a history that no single Kurd has ever lived. We want as much as we can to allow all of those Kurds in competing histories to be represented and to be revealed by representation. Do the Kurds connect to a sense of the history that we’ve been uncovering? The reality is that they must still be digging for their own, much more immediate history — which is tragic.

Meiselas recently (in 2009) had a show titled “In History.” My title for this post uses “making” rather than “in” because the latter assumes what I don’t think you can assume; that history is “out there” apart from our making of it. There are many other phrases with which I could quibble, for example, “I don’t have the right to decide this. Our project can only be based on what we’ve been able to find.” Who does have the right to decide? What project is ever based on anything beyond “what we’ve been able to find”? Which is not meant to say that I don’t admire Meiselas. She’s smart and honest and she’s trying to deal with these issues. Can’t ask for more than that.

For more about Meiselas, see Jim Johnson’s multiple blog postings about her, and the site for the Kurdish book, and her Magnum page, and her own web site.



September 29, 2009

One Off

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:18 am

First a complete (untitled) poem by Joshua Harmon from his book, Scape (2009):

There is no ideal blackout
or validation of passage

A conversion narrative:
rain’s complicated phrases

Mingle of us frailly

Precarious annal and
some finished proof


Next is a fragment from a different (untitled) poem in that same book:

… Her name
was kindness, a kind of violence,
or caused kind violence —

I’d prefer a recording of silence




In Fashion

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:15 am

It [is] art in the service of evolution (or vice versa).

photo: Paris, 1987 by Nick Knight

Today’s text is taken from Aperture 122, The Idealizing Vision: The Art of Fashion Photography (Winter 1991). First, from an essay, Pink Thoughts by Glenn O’Brien:

… I was interested in the real thing and pursued it. But still the image was always there, promising more than what was evident in daily life — not the impossible, but the heroically imaginable. The most beautiful women in the world. Not au naturel but au artificiel. They might be naked, or nearly so, but they were made up, styled, and accessorized to the hilt. The beauty wasn’t a simple matter of natural biological attraction. This beauty wasn’t a matter of nature. It was art improving on the best nature had to offer. It was art in the service of evolution (or vice versa).

Pornography is often defined as that which appeals to prurient interests, but prurient interests are entirely natural, and most prurience could be seen as being in the service of the survival of the fittest. Fashion photography is entirely prurient in intention. It serves to create an itch, in some cases an itch that can be scratched only through fashion consumption.

Fashion photography (like cheesecake photography) is a two-edged sword. It creates a target for evolution. A mechanism for the process of divinity. Photographic evidence of the possibility of Olympus. It creates visions that its audiences embody — through clothing, cosmetics, hairstyling, surgery, and post-natural selection. It creates objective standards of desirability by which men’s (and women’s) sexual behavior is governed. Men don’t settle for less, women want more.

[ … ]

Fashion photography might often seem stupid and shallow, but who can say that these photographs of beautiful women don’t mysteriously affect the harvest, the weather, and global politics?

These photos cannot be studied conventionally. It’s an esoteric art widely imitated by life. Peter Bogdanovich saw Cybill Sheperd on the cover of Bride magazine, then made her a movie star and married her. It is also an art that nature imitates, creating broad-based trends in the DNA transactions of the race.

Fashion photography, with its trite poses, unbelievable situations, and transparent intentions, is an awesome and transcendent power. It is beyond right and wrong. It is almost a force of nature.

Next is from an inset Sylvia Plachy quote that appears at the very end of the magazine:

The beauty of fashion photography is that it is guilt free. You can work on a fantasy, on a might-have-been or a mood, and the model will repeat each gesture until you can perfect a moment. But still, it only works when it is spontaneous within a set-up and authentic within a lie.

In journalism you only get one chance. You succeed when you can intuit a moment that transcends the chaos. It is about facing what is instead of what should be, and the joy of journalistic photography is the visual discovery that is equivalent to your understanding. There is more risk than in fashion, where you pay for your pleasure. It is someone’s real life or blood and feeling that is your raw material. You have to justify, if only to yourself, that even if you don’t steal souls you always invade someone’s privacy.

I think that “the joy of journalistic photography is the visual discovery that is equivalent to your understanding.” is true of all photography, not just journalism. And while it may be the “joy,” it is not where the best photography will be found. In fact the joy in matching one’s expectation is the impediment to reaching the best, especially in journalism. The best photography — and not only the best, but the most valuable, the most essential photojournalism — comes from exactly those times when a picture is not equivalent to your understanding but which, when seen, is wonderfully or terribly sensible with your existing understanding. When you are made to see what you had not quite previously understood or been able to understand.

I think that’s where photojournalism — and art photography — differs from fashion photography.



September 28, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:25 am

Sure, the mantis shrimp can strike really fast (“with an acceleration of 10,400 g and speeds of 23 m/s from a standing start” — from Wikipedia) but the star-nosed mole can not only strike, but identify and consume in as little as 120 milliseconds.


Kenneth Catania/PA/PA Archive/PA Photos

“Its brain decides in the ultra short time of 8 ms if a prey is comestible or not. This speed is at the limit of the speed of neurons.” [ Wikipedia ]

Of course, if we have no free will, then the “decides” part is a fiction and doesn’t count.



Towering Under Us, Looming Downward

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:50 am

Not familiarity but recognition is the craving here, a thirst not for knowledge but acknowledgment, not likeness but identity. And it must be put this way — in the way of choices entertained and rejected, hesitations, bewilderments, refusals. It would be out of the question to speak (as we are so fond of speaking ) of “unerring aims,” of “sure instincts,” when their object is precisely errant, indeterminate: when the target is the realization of life itself, and the errors the very means whereby any aim — focus, concentration, scope — may be achieved.

A young man, a young poet, cannot discover the true goals of his endeavor without discarding the false ones. The wrong turns, the missing links and mistaken signals are no more than evidence of what may be right, given, understood. Over this book is suspended, like a ceiling of swords, the threat and indeed the doom of the negative.

[ … ]

Which way I fly is hell, myself am hell is the ultimate Satanic assertion, and one which Bidart has made, wittily and sometimes with a wonderful lyric warp to his prose (“I turned, and turned, but now all that was left / was an enormous / fresco; — on each side, the unreadable / fresco of my life …”), into a thesaurus of detestations, heresies, the scandal — for poetry — of the negative. A clear case, then, or a clarified one, of diabolic possession; the recording angel of Bidart’s world is a fallen one: himself. “What reaches him,” he asks in the poem “Self-Portrait,” “except disaster?” By the end of the book we know — it is no longer what reaches him but what he can reach, the colonization of inferno. And hell lay all before him, where to choose . . .

That’s from the essay, Frank Bidart, Golden State (1973) in the book, Paper Trail: selected prose, 1965-2003 by Richard Howard (2004).

The single sentence, below, is from another essay (Turner Cassity, Yellow for Peril, Black for Beautiful [1975] ) in the same book:

When James Merrill refers, characteristically and characterizingly, to the structure of this peregrine poetry as “an opera house in the jungle,” we must not — in our immediate rush of assent to the rightness of the edifice and its environing wilds so identified — we must not mistake the whereabouts of that barrens, the location of exoticism: the jungle is ourselves, the way we live now; and the freakishness, the spectral singularity of Cassity’s open-all-night casino, is that it should stand, towering under us, looming downward in all its derisive shapeliness, amid our noisy parking lots and plastic trees which encroach, as jungles do, upon the civil space of speech.



September 27, 2009

Seeing is No Longer Believing

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:26 am

All of the below are partial quotes of short pieces in Aperture 129 (Fall, 1992) which was/is their 40th anniversary issue:

I’m sure everyone’s heard a version of this before — the old saw that with age and experience comes a certain disillusionment. I chose to be a photographer twenty-two years ago, but I don’t know if I’d make that choice again. Back in the early eighties, I still thought I was doing okay, trying to order and shape the world with my camera. Now that I know a bit more about living and dying, about our planet and its complex problems, I’m a lot less comfortable with my images of people.

Still, I haven’t a clue what else to do. — Eugene Richards

I believe photographs to be pieces of an incomplete jigsaw puzzle. — Daido Moriyama

Human honesty and deception have been the core of my work. I am drawn to energy that is both constrained and unbounded, and I try with the camera to fix the complexity of the moment: to create an infectious perception, so as to change the viewers’ aloof judgment to one of unavoidable, impassioned involvement. — Larry Fink

Robert Stone recently wrote of his early experience in Havana: “Walking out of the shadows of the covered wharf and into the bright sunlight of the street, I took my first step into the problematic otherness that would so tax our country’s moral speculation: the un-American world.” For the past fourteen years I have tried in some fashion to explore this “problematic otherness,” photographing in the tropics in color, attempting to understand this other as well as examining — albeit very obliquely — the self. — Alex Webb

It’s important to me that the pictures lead you back to your primary experience of walking around in the world. I think the look of fact is what enables one to do that. I see the experience of pictures as a kind of cycle, a kind of circular motion in which you’re in the world, then you enter the picture and you’re in a different world (it’s not the same as the one you live in, but recognizable as one you might live in). And then you’re returned to your world with an enlarged sense of its possibilities. — Frank Gohlke

From photos to movies, to TV, to home videos and computers, these pictures and words have the power to tell us who we are and who we aren’t, to dictate what we can and cannot be. But they also suggest that seeing is no longer believing and that what you see is not what you get. — Barbara Kruger

Russell Lee, who infused as much heart as anyone into the great chronicle produced by the Farm Security Administration during the Depression, taught that respect is the most important thing you put into your camera. It’s like slicing off a little part of your heart and putting it in with the film. Go ahead and think me sentimental. I stand on some mountain somewhere and voices in the wind tell me this is the only way to live my life. — Maggie Steber



September 26, 2009

An Allegory

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:00 am

This is a small part of a much longer essay. The (male) author is writing a story about the Illinois State Fair for Harper’s magazine. He’s originally from Illinois, but has not lived there in some time, so he has recruited a local friend from high school — a woman whom he does not name, but calls Native Companion or sometimes Native C. — to accompany him. They are at the fair early on the first day before the Fair is truly open to the public:

… One of the fully assembled rides near the Hollow’s west end is something called The Zipper. It’s riderless but in furious motion, a kind of Ferris Wheel on amphetamines. Individual caged cars are hinged to spin on their own axes as they go around in a tight vertical ellipse. The machine looks less like a zipper than the head of a chain saw. Its off-white paint is chipped, and it sounds like a shimmying V-12, and in general it’s something I’d run a mile in tight shoes to avoid riding. But Native Companion starts clapping and hopping around excitedly as we approach The Zipper. (This is a person who bungee jumps, to give you an idea.) And the operator at the controls sees her, waves back, and shouts down to Git on over and git some if she’s a mind to. He claims they want to test The Zipper somehow. He’s up on a kind of steel platform, elbowing a colleague next to him in a way I don’t much like. We have no tickets, I point out, and none of the cash-for-ticket booths are manned. By now we’re somehow at the base of the stairway up to the platform and control panel. The operator says without looking at me that the matter of tickets this early on Opening Day “Ain’t no sweat off my balls.” The operator’s colleague conducts Native Companion up the waffled-steel steps and straps her into a cage, upping a thumb at the operator, who gives a sort of Rebel Yell and pulls a lever. Native C.’s cage begins to ascend. Pathetic little fingers appear in the cage’s mesh. The Zipper operator is ageless and burnt-brown and has a mustache waxed to wicked points like steers’ horns, rolling a Drum cigarette with one hand as he nudges levers upward and the ellipse speeds up and the individual cages start to spin independently on their hinges. Native Companion is a blur of color inside her cage, but the operator and colleague (whose jeans have worked down his hips to the point where the top of his butt-crack is clearly visible) watch studiously as her spinning cage and the clanking empty cages circle the ellipse approx. once a second. I have a particular longstanding fear of things that spin independently inside a larger spin. I can barely even watch this. The Zipper is the color of unbrushed teeth, with big scabs of rust. The operator and colleague sit on a little steel bench before a panel full of black-knobbed levers. … The colleague spits Skoal into a can he holds and tells the operator to “Well then take her to Eight then you pussy.” The Zipper begins to whine and the thing to spin so fast that a detached car would surely be hurled into orbit. The colleague has a small American flag folded into a bandanna around his head. The empty cages shudder and clank as they whirl, spinning independently. One long scream, bobbled by Doppler, is coming from Native C.’s cage, which is going around and around on its hinges while a shape inside tumbles like stuff in a dryer. My particular neurological makeup (extremely sensitive: carsick, airsick, heightsick; my sister likes to say I’m “lifesick”) makes even just watching this an act of enormous personal courage. The scream goes on and on; it’s nothing like a swine’s [they had recently visited the Swine Barn]. Then the operator stops the ride abruptly with Native C.’s car at the top, so she’s hanging upside down inside the cage. I call up Is she OK, but the response is just high-pitched noises. I see the two carnies gazing upward very intently, shading their eyes. The operator’s stroking his mustache contemplatively. The cage’s inversion has made Native Companion’s dress fall up. They’re ogling her nethers, obviously. As they laugh, the sound literally sounds like “Tee hee hee hee.” A less sensitive neurological specimen probably would have stepped in at this point and stopped the whole grotesque exercise. My own makeup leans more toward disassociation when under stress. [ … ] Now the operator’s joggling the choke-lever so The Zipper stutters back and forth, forward and backward, making N.C.’s top car spin around and around on its hinges. His colleague’s T-shirt has a stoned Ninja Turtle on it, toking on a joint. There’s a distended A# scream from the whirling cage, as if Native C.’s getting slow-roasted. I summon saliva to step in and really say something stern, but at this point they start bringing her down. The operator is deft at his panel; the car’s descent is almost fluffy. His hands on the levers are a kind of parody of tender care. The descent takes forever — ominous silence from Native Companion’s car. The two carnies are laughing and slapping their knee. I clear my throat twice. There’s a trundly sound as Native Companion’s car gets locked down at the platform. Jiggles of movement in the cage, and the door’s latch slowly turns. I expect whatever husk of a human being emerges from the car to be hunched and sheet-white, dribbling fluids. Instead she sort of bounds out:

“That was fucking great. Joo see that? Son bitch spun that car sixteen times, joo see it?” This woman is native Midwestern, from my hometown. My prom date a dozen years ago. Now married, with three children, teaches water-aerobics to the obese and infirm. Her color is high. Her dress looks like the world’s worst case of static cling. She’s still got her chewing gum in, for God’s sake. She turns to the carnies: “You sons bitches that was fucking great. Assholes.” The colleague is half-draped over the operator; they’re roaring with laughter. Native Companion has her hands on her hips sternly, but she’s grinning. Am I the only one who was in touch with the manifestly overt sexual-harassment element in this whole episode? She takes the steel stairs down three at a time and starts up the hillside toward the food booths. There is no sanctioned path up the incredibly steep hill on the Hollow’s western side. Behind us the operator calls out: “They don’t call me King of The Zipper for nuthin’, sweet thang.” She snorts and calls back over her shoulder “Oh you and whose fucking platoon?” and there’s more laughter behind.

— from the story, Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All in the collection of stories, A Supposedly Fun thing I’ll Never Do Again by the late David Foster Wallace (1997). It originally appeared in Harper’s in 1994.



September 25, 2009

Beyond Binarisms

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:28 am

… Beyond binarisms lie more complex methods, vexed discourses, harder choices; all of which require more subtle tools than those to which, perforce, we’ve been accustomed.

This is a continuation, on a somewhat more serious note, of yesterday’s post. Both are taken from the Epilogue to the book, Art / Women / California edited by Diana Burgess Fuller and Daniela Salvioni (2002). That Epilogue/essay is subtitled The Baby or the Bath Water: Being an Inquiry into the Nature of Woman, Womyn, Art, Time, and Timing in Five Thousand Words or Less and it is by Allucquere Rosanne Stone.

… Originally we were drawn together because we were all exiles. But exile in itself does not a community make. The message the UnWomen bring is that “Ain’t I a woman,” brave and empowering a statement though it is, reifies oppression every bit as much as any description of one’s place in a regime of power. Speaking under the sign of Woman is to always already be interpellated as oppressed. Salvaging freedom through affirming the power of the already-named is a doomed enterprise. It signifies that one has already accepted the definitions imposed by a regime of power so pervasive that its existence is assumed, given, invisible. The foremothers, struggling for freedom, still saw themselves as women . . . and by that interaction with their society, perforce constructed themselves as women.

When Queer activists re-appropriated “Queer” as a mark of pride, the reversal of meaning was total, since Queer had been a term that society despised. Its use as affirmation marked a rupture with the regime of power in which it was situated. The situation is different with “Woman.” Our society has warped the term beyond recuperation. Quantum-like, its meanings are simultaneously positive and perverse, echoing the way women are perceived in predominantly masculinist discourses. Since in mainstream American culture its meanings are both vaunted and despised, its potential for rupture is foreclosed. One could say the term is spoiled, in the way contaminated food is spoiled. The contamination can’t be scraped off. It runs deep.

… Living, as we do, deep in the past, it’s sometimes hard to appreciate the incongruity of our headlong fall beyond the end of the categories we’ve defended so stoutly for an entire century and countless centuries before it, and the gains we’ve made while still managing to speak from within that category. Suffrage, equal pay for equal work, a scintilla of control over our bodies, glass ceilings . . . and then to suddenly notice that we’re running, like Wile E. Coyote, across thin air, with nothing supporting us but our crazy belief in our own existence.

And so finally, you and I are alone with each other, sole survivors of the wreck of a mighty discourse. What have we learned about how that discourse flourished and faded in the century now dead? The UnWoman says: identity politics had limits; although we can try awfully damn hard and turn the language this way and that, we can’t have our biology-is-destiny cake without eating our socially constructed icing too — and not without acknowledging that in art as elsewhere, such a feast signals the end of binarism as an investigational tool. Beyond binarisms lie more complex methods, vexed discourses, harder choices; all of which require more subtle tools than those to which, perforce, we’ve been accustomed.



September 24, 2009

Refuse Closure

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:35 am

… Out of this regime of experimentation (or pit of license, choose one or both) emerged a loose constellation of practices which I consider useful to women artists who may be setting out on the road to pedagogy or practice — hard to tell the difference — in a similar unnameable discourse. I recommend them as points of departure, and keep in mind that they are descriptive rather than proscriptive. It’s likely, though by no means certain, that they owe their beginnings to three suggestions from deep in the mists of time: Refuse closure; Insist on situation; Seek multiplicity. I won’t burden you by spinning them out; use your imagination. From them, maybe, in not too clear a cause-effect progression, come some other practices that I may elaborate on a bit more. Okay, here we go: Teaching women art and technology in the twenty-first century.

Reward risk taking. No elaboration necessary.

Trust subjective criteria. Your own, that is. Trust your sense of the value of the work. Don’t lean on a canon where none exists.; don’t reify a canon simply to have one.

Translate incomprehensible weirdness into institutional clarity. Be a shield and interlocutor for your students against the institution’s need for uniformity and predictability. Make their work appear to embrace order where no order exists.

Finally, by way of A.E. Van Vogt: Do not ridicule by word or deed any edicts of the institutional empire. Simply disobey them.

That and the following are from the Epilogue to a book, Art / Women / California 1950-2000 edited by Diana Burgess Fuller and Daniela Salvioni (2002). The Epilogue/essay is subtitled The Baby or the Bath Water: Being an Inquiry into the Nature of Woman, Womyn, Art, Time, and Timing in Five Thousand Words or Less by Allucquere Rosanne Stone. Here is a bit that precedes the above:

… Unusual structures in the brain are merely the latest addition to what we might call an alternative history of the female body, for the truth is that history is full of accounts of odd traffic within women’s bodies. Everyone in critical studies knows the ancient Greeks believed that the womb could wander among the other organs, providing an explanatory framework for women’s otherwise unaccountable emotional states. Such passages in old texts have been used to show how women’s internal structure was interpretable at whim to satisfy ideas (usually male, she added, rolling her eyes) of how the body worked. Once modern medical science was firmly established, it was beyond question that the wandering womb conjecture was insupportable by any modern observation or diagnostic technique, not to mention the subjective experiences of millions of women — to the point that when, in 1949, Melba Jackson was admitted to Roosevelt Memorial Hospital in Grand Forks, Idaho with unexplained shoulder pain and the attending doctors were startled to discover that her womb had wandered into her neck, nobody cared — (here she gave a deep sigh) which leads, not to questions of how psychology influences representation, but instead to ask what happened to women’s bodies in the intervening two thousand years to cause their internal organs to settle into fixed locations, and what could that outcome mean to philosophy and medicine.

I’ll be quoting further from this same essay tomorrow. Stay tuned.



September 23, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:56 am

First, the Hawthorne effect turns out to be not so effective. Now the waggle dance turns out to be wobbly.

Tsk, tsk … Being wrong is so inconvenient. Maybe if they put some bees in the Hawthorne factory, the people would waggle, and if they turned the lights up and down on the bee’s nest, they would be more productive.



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